Every day, businesses, political organizations, educational institutions, and news outlets put out surveys to collect various kinds of data. The uses for this survey data vary depending on the entity behind it, but every organization wants data that is both accurate and precise so they can make data-driven decisions or reach reasonable conclusions that reflect reality.
The problem is that, sometimes, survey results don’t line up with reality. Instead of getting honest answers from real people, surveys might end up receiving a bunch of survey bot traffic that completely invalidates the survey data. Worse yet, the organizers of the survey may not even realize this fact—leading them to depend on faulty data.
To protect your online surveys from survey bots, it’s important to know what a bot is, how it can be used, and what you can do to reduce risk.
What Is a Survey Bot?
A survey bot is a type of form bot that is specifically designed to fill out a survey. “Bots” are automated programs designed to carry out tasks on the behalf of a human user. While some bot programs can be benign, survey bots are malicious—designed with the express purpose of causing harm.
Survey bots may be somewhat more involved to create than other form bots. Why? Because, unlike a standard lead generation form, surveys can ask a wide variety of questions that may even include subjective answers. So, the survey bot’s programmer may need to tweak the bot’s programming to be specific to the questions in the survey being targeted.
These bots can be an enormous risk because modern surveys are becoming increasingly reliant on digital distribution methods. 7% of small businesses use online customer surveys daily—and those that do are more likely to report business conditions as “good” than those that don’t (Source: SurveyMonkey).
Because they invalidate survey results, survey bots are a threat to any business that relies on product, marketing, or customer satisfaction surveys to guide their business strategy.
How Are Survey Bots Used?
The basic operation of a survey bot is not that different from a form bot: the fraudster makes (or buys) a bot program and sets it up to automatically take the survey. But, what’s the application for doing this? There are a few different use cases that fraudsters and other malicious actors can leverage with a survey-filling form bot:
- Earning Commissions for Surveys. Some companies pay affiliates or third-party organizations to deliver surveys to consumers on their behalf. Fraudsters may try to use bots to get survey form fills to earn these commissions for themselves—quickly running the victim out of their survey budget and pocketing the cash before disappearing.
- Claiming Survey Bonuses/Freebies. Some companies incentivize consumers to fill out surveys by giving out gift cards, coupons, or other bonuses for completing the survey. “Take a 5-minute survey to get a $5 gift card” might not sound like much, but it can add up rather quickly. Scammers can use bots to fill out the survey hundreds of times using email addresses that they own—allowing them to claim the survey bonus for themselves.
- To Win a Contest. Some surveys might offer a prize to random survey takers. In order to maximize their chances of winning the prize, fraudsters might use survey bots to repeatedly take the survey. In the case of a product survey gauging which product would be the most likely to sell out of a set of new product ideas, a person might use a survey bot to skew the contest results in favor of the product they most want to see released.
- Sabotaging Competitors. Marketing and product surveys can play a vital role in a business’ operating strategy. Some unscrupulous competitors may try to sabotage a company by using form bots to corrupt their survey results—giving the victim faulty data that doesn’t reflect real consumer sentiments. This can cost the affected company time and resources.
- Simple Harassment. Some people use survey bots less as tools for profit or competition and more as a way to conduct pranks on others. Instead of trying to claim commissions or hurt a company for their own organization’s profit, they simply want to cause havoc because they can.
- To Support a Political Cause. Political activists with hacking skills (hacktivists) might use survey bots to skew political polls or marketing surveys to make certain political views seem more or less popular than they actually are. This can alter public perception of the political climate or lead companies to make changes to their core values/mission statement to align with a political ideology that isn’t as widespread as they might think.
These are some of the common use cases for survey bots, but there may be many more. There are countless individuals who have their own motivations for their actions—and it’s impossible to accurately go over each one in detail in a single article of a reasonable length.
Impacts of Survey Bots on a Business
So, how can survey bots affect a business? There are many negative impacts that bots can create on a company. Some examples include:
- Wasted Survey Spend. Invalid survey results represent a direct waste of any money spent on creating, advertising, and distributing the survey. Even online surveys, which are the most cost-effective method of delivering surveys, can represent a significant expenditure—especially for a small-to-midsize business.
- Wasted Product Development Spend. Product surveys used to gauge public interest in a new product line can help a company determine whether it’s worth their time and effort to spend money on R&D, tooling, supply chain management, and manufacturing for a new product. However, if that assessment is based on bad survey data, the company could end up wasting millions on a product that will turn out to be a dud.
- Damage to a Company’s Reputation. Survey bots could indirectly harm a company’s reputation with the public. How? One way is by twisting polls about the company to make them overwhelmingly negative. Social media bots (bot programs that are designed to operate social media accounts) are even worse since they can share fake negative stories about companies online—and use the bad survey results as “proof” of their allegations.
- Operational Disruptions to Fix Nonexistent Problems. Customer satisfaction surveys are a critical part of any consumer-oriented business. Collecting feedback about customer interactions can be incredibly helpful for fixing issues and smoothing out the journey from lead to paying customer. However, survey bots can make it seem like there are problems with a company’s business processes where there aren’t any. This can lead to operational disruptions as companies try to fix the nonexistent problems.
How to Stop Survey/Form Bots
Bad survey results are a waste of your time and money. So, it’s important to put a stop to survey bots that target your online surveys. But how can you stop them?
Here are a few ways to combat the problem of form bots that target your surveys:
1. Using CAPTCHA/reCAPTCHA
For years, CAPTCHA and reCAPTCHA have been the go-to free tools for businesses that want to weed out bot traffic from their online forms and surveys. The classic “I am a human” check box, jumbled string of letters/numbers, or fuzzy pictures various objects are all well-known to longtime internet users.
Unfortunately, this also means that fraudsters have had years to learn all about CAPTCHA, how it works, and how to bypass it. CAPTCHA fails miserably at stopping all but the most basic of form bots—keeping it from being of much use against fraudsters.
It’s like trying to fix a blown tire with a band-aid. It just isn’t going to work.
2. Honeypot Form Fields
Bots don’t see web pages in the same way that humans do. Instead of looking at what’s displayed on a screen, a bot directly reads the code on the web page. So, what happens when there’s code for a form field on the page that doesn’t actually display for human users to see?
The bot will try to provide a response to the “invisible” form field since it sees a form there and is programmed to give a response. This tips off the survey maker that a given survey response is from a bot since a human user wouldn’t be able to see the invisible form field.
This strategy is called the “honeypot form field” technique. It’s an old trick for detecting bots, but remains highly effective. Unfortunately, more sophisticated bots can easily bypass it. The programmer simply has to ensure that the bot only fills out the questions that are visible to people in a given survey form.
3. Using Email Verification
Another way to thwart bot traffic is to use an email verification process to validate survey responses. For example, instead of taking people directly to a survey, a company could ask for the recipient’s email address and send the link to the survey in the email.
This could help stem the tide of fraudulent survey responses somewhat, but it isn’t a perfect solution. Two major issues include:
- Verification Emails Can Cause Friction in the Survey Process. Creating extra hoops for survey takers to go through may lead to people opting out of the survey. This limits the number of responses that a survey will get—potentially leading to survey bias.
- Some Scammers Can Get Around Email Verification. There are fraudsters out there who have control of numerous dummy email accounts that they can use for email verification purposes. They can simply forward the verification email to one of their puppet accounts and open the link from there. This is especially common for fraudsters looking to make money off of survey bonuses or who try to illicitly win survey prizes.
In short, you may get fewer responses while experienced fraudsters will get around the verification process regardless of this precaution.
4. Review Survey Taker Meta Data
When possible, check the “meta data” of your survey takers. This includes information like their IP address, operating system, device specs, and other information that can be used to identify a particular person taking the survey.
If a bunch of survey responses are all coming from the same IP address or device type (with the same OS and specs), that could be a sign that someone is using a bot to fill out your survey repeatedly from the same device.
Some sophisticated fraudsters might use device spoofing and IP masking techniques to hide their meta data—making it harder to identify them reliably. However, reviewing meta data can be a reliable way to spot survey bot activity.
5. Check the Consistency of Survey Results
One other way to potentially identify heavy bot traffic is to look at the actual survey results and see if they’re abnormally consistent—like 99% of results being identical to one another. If you have open-ended opinion-based questions in your survey, how many respondents either give no answer or have a word-for-word identical answer?
Issues like this could be a sign that bots are being used to fill out your survey. However, this is a largely subjective assessment and may require extensive expertise to positively flag a survey as being legitimate or compromised by fraud.
6. Using an Ad Fraud Solution That Can Detect Bots
As an alternative to the long-since-thwarted CAPTCHA tool or other, more manual methods of bot detection, you can use an ad fraud solution to identify bot traffic in your online surveys. These solutions help you automate the process of finding bots so you can filter them out of your survey results data.
However, not all ad fraud solutions are created equally. It’s important to use a proven ad fraud solution that is certified to identify fraudulent traffic in real time so that you know when the activity on your survey is flagged as fraud, it’s fraud. This helps you get rid of fraudulent traffic without risking genuine survey results that you need to make more informed business decisions.
Need help filtering fraud out of your surveys? Reach out to Anura today to get started!